“I don’t like Doug’s new girlfriend at all,” Earl confessed.
His wife Grace lowered the oven’s jaw and extracted a roasting pan of steaming sweet potatoes with mitted hands. “We don’t even know her,” she said, sighing effortfully as she released the pan onto the stove with a clang.
Earl stared into the hot black metallic maw and felt unsettled. He swirled a glass of red as his wife dried her brow with a forearm.
“Would you like some help?” he said.
“I’m done.” Grace scooped potatoes onto a serving dish. “So what don’t you like about her?”
“She talks too much.”
Several weeks ago, Earl, Grace, Doug, and Laura had taken a short walk in the park, and Earl’s ears still rang from Laura’s nattering. Oh, how hard her dance performances were! Oh, what a grind, those commercial auditions! Earl and Doug had been best friends since grade school. They had gone to college and business school together, and even ran a startup for three years before selling it to a public company. Of all of Doug’s girlfriends (and there had been many), Laura was the most irritating. Earl tried to commit to memory what she looked like. Blue eyes, blonde, not from a bottle.
“Has to say every feeling that comes to her head,” Earl added.
“You don’t talk about your feelings at all,” Grace said.
Her back was turned to him. She was washing the cutting board in the sink. The way her elbows churned, Grace looked like she could have been strangling someone. Was she still upset at his cold reaction to her recently expressed desire to have children? Grace accused him of flip-flopping. Sure, he’d previously claimed to love kids. But was he being unreasonable to say that they were too expensive? She was a city social worker! Sure, they had a decent nest egg after selling the company. But none of Doug and Earl’s latest ideas had taken off yet. What if none of them would? How would they manage then? No one liked to admit that having children could be an irreversible, life-altering mistake.
Grace emptied the sink and began to scrub it. She was growing her hair long again. He liked her hair long, so hearty, so dark—smelled of black figs. His sweet Grace. Earl wrapped an arm around her waist. They could overcome anything.
“Some feelings need not be said,” he said, sliding his hand down to her backside.
Grace moved away. “For God’s sake, Earl! Set the table.”
Doug and his girlfriend arrived late, arms crooked and intertwined. The blushing Laura handed Earl a bottle of vodka. “Good to see you again,” Earl said. She hugged him more tightly than he preferred. Earl inspected the clear glass, which was the color of faded clay against Laura’s blonde hair. Vodka at a couple’s dinner?
Doug was grinning sheepishly. “Sorry we’re late.” He glanced at Laura. “Traffic.”
In the decades Earl and Doug had known each other, Earl recalled Doug being tardy perhaps twice. Doug’s father was big on discipline and structure; he was part of the Japanese civilian military before immigrating to the States. In the few times he’d seen Doug and Laura together, they’d been late each instance (not just a few minutes like today, but thirty, forty, fifty minutes). Earl imagined Doug and Laura stopping for sex in the car. Seemed like something they might do, something she might initiate. Earl vaguely recollected the one time he and Grace had been so bold as to make love in an automobile. He practically had to get the community to sign waivers promising not to watch before Grace was comfortable.
“Your timing is perfect,” Earl said.
“No thanks to Earl,” Grace said, smiling as she walked out of the kitchen. She hugged Doug and then Laura, kissing them on both cheeks. “Let’s see if he can get you something to drink.”
Grace was definitely still upset, Earl thought. He raised the bottle of vodka. “Well, there’s no shortage.”
Earl poured a very full, very dark glass of Bordeaux for Laura, who was already on number four. “Thanks, Earl,” she said loudly, her blue eyes wide. Earl looked away just in case Doug and Grace caught him staring too long at Laura. Grace ladled sweet potatoes onto Laura’s plate.
“Every dish is so delicious,” Laura said, her eyes rolling up on the words “every” and “so.”
“It’s been too long,” Grace said. “Whenever Earl makes an effort to invite friends over, it’s a special occasion.”
“I make effort,” Earl said, forcing a smile.
“As long as it doesn’t cost you too much money,” Grace said. “As long it doesn’t take precious time away from your next ideation.” Ideation: finger-quoted.
Doug laughed. Earl followed suit. “Apparently, it’s not only the potatoes being roasted tonight,” Earl said. “Someone should have told me ahead of time. I’d have worn a tweed jacket and bought a Lazy Boy to sit in.”
“Grace knows you can take it,” Doug said, placing an arm around Laura. Laura squeezed Doug’s thigh. Earl leaned over and kissed Grace’s clammy cheek. The laboring oven had warmed the dining room to the point the windows were fogged, frosting their view of the black night.
Laura slapped the table. “Oh my God! So here’s why we’re late.”
Doug’s eyes dropped. “It was no big deal.”
“So we’re at the liquor store,” she said. “We’re both standing at the counter. I pay for the vodka, and the owner looks at me, and then he looks at Doug, and asks him, ‘Can I help you?’”
“Why would he do that?” Earl said.
“He couldn’t believe we were together!” Laura said. “When I told the guy Doug was my boyfriend, his face literally went white.”
“Pun intended?” Earl said. Grace rolled her eyes.
“He actually said, ‘Yes, ma’am,’” Laura said. “He called me ‘Ma’am!’ He was so scared to admit his racism.”
“He may not have been racist at all,” Doug said, resting fork on plate. “Maybe I looked distracted or maybe we weren’t standing that close together. Who knows?”
“Doug!” Laura scooted her chair so that she and Doug touched thighs. “We were this close.”
“Wow,” Grace said, shaking her head. “In this day and age.”
Doug glanced at Earl, then Grace. He forced a smile and shrugged. “It happens.”
“All the time,” Laura said.
On the balcony, Doug set his near-full wine glass on the rail and lit Earl’s cigarette. The outdoor light bulb had burnt out and Earl hadn’t bothered to replace it, so the two men were standing in near-darkness.
Doug had always been the man Earl wanted to be. Tall, thin, good-looking, well-spoken, perpetually genial. People were drawn to Doug. Earl considered himself short, a bit fleshy, generally undesirable to both women and men. When they ran the startup together, Earl led the engineering team, and Doug was the chief executive and spokesman to the media and the investors. He was good at saying the right thing and convincing people that he was genuine, a man of integrity. Someone in which you could invest with confidence. Earl was good at working long hours, coming up with ideas for his team to execute, observing workforce dynamics and maximizing non-optimal outcomes—avoiding the big mistake. Sure, Grace liked to make fun of Earl’s cards-close-to-the-vest approach to life. But someone had to make sure what Doug sold was actually delivered upon. At his wedding, Earl wept during Doug’s best man speech. Doug said that the two of them would be friends for life because Earl saw things that Doug didn’t; they were eyes on the same head, halves of the same heart. The touching nature of Doug’s words, the emotion of the moment, surprised Earl.
“So what did you do to piss Grace off?” Doug said, grinning. “Too much time in the man den?”
“She thinks she wants kids,” Earl said.
“And I don’t.”
Earl shook his head. Doug laughed. “You guys have been married for ten years! How could there be a miscommunication about this?”
“Well, maybe I misled her,” Earl said. “Misled may be strongly stated. I changed my mind. I like things the way they are.” The truth? Saying you didn’t want children seemed somewhat uncouth, especially when you knew your future wife wanted them. It was not unlike when he worked at a large corporation and his boss wanted Earl to drive a project that Earl knew was ill-fated. Do you tell your boss that her idea is ill-fated or do you do as told and act surprised when aforementioned fate turns ill? Earl had never wanted to subject another human being to what he went through as a young man. The bruising expectations of his parents. The awkwardness. The bullying. By boys and girls alike! Asian boys were never cool. And the Asian women! My, someone stop the white boy train! Perhaps progress had been made since Earl and Doug grew up. But was perhaps good enough?
“I think you two would enjoy parenthood,” Doug said.
“Are you kidding?” Earl said. “I’m glad my parents are dead.”
“I know that sounds cold,” Earl said, realizing that he probably wouldn’t have said those words aloud if he were sober. “But that’s the way I feel. That’s the way lots of people feel. No one wants to admit it.”
“All I’m saying is, you’ve got a good woman there,” Doug said. “Supportive. Patient. She put up with a lot during our boom days. You’re a lucky dude.”
“I am,” Earl said, glancing inside at his tiny Grace chatting with statuesque Laura. “Absolutely, I am. Whatever it is that’s bothering her, I’m sure it’ll pass.”
“What do you think of Laura?” Doug asked.
“She’s fine, perfectly nice.”
“I’m really head over heels,” Doug said. “It’s scary.”
Earl looked up at Doug. Laura? Dramatic Laura? “That was quick,” he said.
“Mistake?” Doug sipped his wine, his eyes still fixed on Earl.
Earl rested his elbows on the balcony’s black steel rail and ashed his cigarette into his dark garden. The full moon was visible through the branches of the large tree that walled off Earl’s house from the neighbor’s. “I don’t know her, really,” he said, his voice tentative. “She’s just so…”
Earl laughed. “For the record, I was going to say ‘animated.’”
“Like a cartoon.”
“You don’t like her,” Doug said.
“That’s not true.” Earl wished he had brought his wine out with him as Doug had. His buzz needed re-sparking.
Doug again rested his wine glass on the rail. He gripped Earl’s shoulder and gently turned his friend away from the balcony’s edge. Doug pointed at Earl’s chest. “Tell me if I’ve lost my head. Not another joke. The truth.”
Earl swallowed, uncomfortable with the scrutiny. He stared into the seemingly unending blackness beyond them. He took a deep breath and borrowed a sip of dark wine from his friend’s glass. He cleared his throat and looked into Doug’s eyes.
“The liquor store incident,” he said. “Does that happen a lot?”
Doug nodded. “I’ve dated white before and I’ve never had these issues.”
Doug told Earl that when he and Laura were alone together, it was great. Great sex life, relationship give and take, lots of common interests, and all that. But in public, Laura drew attention to herself—to the issue. He speculated that the attention came from her looks. She was an object of envy, perhaps. Earl pointed out that Doug had dated many good-looking women (“Remember the Latvian-what-was-her name? Holy cow.”). Earl theorized that the attention came from Laura’s lack of subtlety, her enjoyment of confrontation. For that reason, Earl expressed his reservations about Doug’s potential long-term commitment to Laura.
“There’s no way around it,” Earl said. “She prances.”
When Earl and Doug returned to the women, Grace was sitting in a living room chair, and Laura was standing, half-full wine glass in hand, stooped over Earl’s wife. Grace was eyeing Laura’s glass, frightened for her clothes and their furniture. Earl drifted toward Laura, trying to empty her hands. She was quite fit, possessed a dancer’s effortlessly vertical posture.
Laura was practically singing about how her father, a Texan, had objected to Japanese Doug. That’s what her father called him: Japanese Doug. Her father reasoned that if Laura stayed with Doug, his future grandchildren would never get to play high-school football because they’d be too short, even though Doug was five-foot-eleven.
Doug sat on the couch and beckoned for Laura. “I won him over,” he said. “I took him to a Cowboys game and knew all the players.”
“He did like your earning potential,” Laura said, nearly hitting Earl in the face with her glass.
“Let me freshen you up,” Earl said, taking the wine from her. He teetered into the kitchen. He realized that he also might have had a few too many drinks.
“He still thinks I’ll find true love elsewhere,” he heard Laura say.
“That is so awful,” Grace said somberly.
“I think he’d have preferred that Laura brought home a Mexican,” Doug said. “Then he could at least use his broken Spanish.”
The conversation went out suddenly, as if someone had flipped a light switch. Earl pressed a throbbing spot in the orbit of his eye. It seemed everyone simultaneously realized that they were now discussing aloud topics better left unvoiced.
“Long story short, the man was calling me ‘Son’ by the end of our visit,” Doug said. “I let him beat me at chess too. He was so proud.”
Instead of uncorking a new bottle of Bordeaux, Earl retrieved the vodka from the refrigerator and poured out several shot glasses. He knew Grace wouldn’t approve; she wasn’t much of a drinker. But Earl felt tonight was indeed becoming a vodka night. He peeked into the living room. Laura had finally stopped talking for the moment. She was sitting next to Doug, her shapely legs crossed and wagging, as if impatient, anticipating a dramatic moment. Choosing to ignore Grace’s admonishing look, Earl rounded up the shot glasses and headed back to his guests.
Sitting in his living room armchair, Earl reached for Grace’s hand. She left him hanging for a good thirty seconds before finally grabbing two fingers carelessly, without so much as looking at him. She might as well have flipped him a coaster.
Laura was now talking about how the bassist in her friend’s band hit on her after every show even when Doug was in attendance. The bassist is black, Laura made a point of mentioning.
“I told Serge to back off last time,” Doug said.
“He’s so disrespectful,” Laura said.
Laura was fairly well-endowed, Earl noticed. He wondered if her breasts were natural.
“Makes you wonder if we’re lucky, doesn’t it?” Grace said to Earl.
“How’s that?” Earl said, noticing the way Laura’s blouse exposed her creamy lower back as she reached down to strap her heels.
“We’re both Chinese,” Grace said.
Earl looked over at Grace. Her breasts were smallish. Then he glanced at Laura, whose eyes were glassy from drink. Earl reminded himself to look at Doug too.
“No one questions us,” Earl said.
On the balcony, vodka and O.J. in hand, Earl struggled to hold the lighter steady enough to fire Doug’s cigarette. Inside, Laura’s voice rose over Grace’s. Earl tried to glimpse Laura through the glass doors and couldn’t see either woman. Doug grabbed the lighter from Earl and lit his own smoke.
“I’m starting to see what you’re saying,” Doug said, smoke spouting from his lips. Earl held up innocent, surrendering hands. “Don’t put this on me.”
Doug gripped the railing and stared skyward. “I wish I had what you and Grace have,” he said. “I’m tired of looking. Money changes things. And not for the better. It’s harder to tell who really loves you.”
Earl laughed. “Oh, come on, you can’t be serious.”
Doug glanced at Earl, flat-lipped. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Well, marriage isn’t a life sentence,” Earl said. “You can always get divorced, so you’re always looking for something better.”
Doug’s head tilted, his lips parted slightly. “Does that mean you don’t think of your marriage as a life-long commitment?”
“Don’t be absurd,” Earl said. “I’m just saying that, unlike child-rearing, love and marriage are reversible decisions. Like if she can’t shut her trap about how proud she is to date your non-whiteness, it’s your right to walk away. Just like it’s my right to walk if I don’t like the way my marriage is going.”
Doug began to say something, then stopped. He stubbed out his cigarette and headed inside.
“Was it something I said?” Earl said.
“Gotta piss, bro,” Doug said, squeezing himself through the sliding glass doors before he had fully opened them.
Earl sipped his screwdriver and closed his eyes, relishing the warming of his frontal lobes. The wind picked up, raising the hairs on Earl’s arms. He looked down at the patches of reddened skin and realized he had been scratching all evening. Earl gazed down at his back garden, the egg-shaped shadows of the hedges wavering in the black. Perhaps he’d been a bit disrespectful to his marriage. Earl wasn’t like Doug though. He never feel head over heels for Grace. Grace and Earl happened to attend the same California college, happened to be engineering majors, and their friendship just seemed to happen. In fact, Earl didn’t like to admit that their courtship could have been considered arranged. Grace was the daughter of childhood friends of Earl’s aunt and uncle, who lived in Shenzhen. Certainly, he didn’t plan to discard his sweet Grace. Their life was happy. She always seemed to think more of Earl than he thought of himself. But would he rule out divorce one day if things deteriorated, if she insisted on ruining their very comfortable existence by having a litter of money-eating dwarves (and they would be dwarves; thanks to Earl and Grace’s below average height)? No one liked to speak of it, but Earl was just being frank, blunt perhaps, but ultimately honest. If Doug were to get serious with or perhaps even marry Laura, Earl felt Doug would be making a mistake. He’d have his fun, but the things that bother you before marriage only magnify after. Like Grace’s incessant criticisms, their sporadic sex life, her smallish breasts, and the fact she didn’t wear makeup.
The glass door slid open. Laura staggered out. Her arms were bare; she wasn’t wearing a jacket.
“It’s cold out,” Earl said.
“It is, isn’t it?” Laura rubbed her toned, goose-pimpled arms. She reached in her pocket and pulled out a small spliff. “Mind if I smoke?”
Earl said nothing as he lit her joint. Seemed there wasn’t an intoxicant Laura didn’t like.
“Grace is a wonderful cook,” Laura said. “The potatoes just melted in my mouth.” She stretched the words, saying them loudly as Earl heard Doug laughing with Grace inside. Laura’s nipples were visible against her top.
“That’s my Grace,” Earl said.
“You have a wonderful house,” Laura said. “Doug often says he’d love a place like this instead of the pad he has.”
“It’s pretty modest,” Earl said, inhaling the secondhand pot smoke, trying to feed his inebriation. “But it keeps us from being targeted.”
“What?” Laura laughed. “In this neighborhood?”
“You can never let your guard down around the gangland Asians,” Earl joked. “You know all about them, don’t you?”
Laura shivered. “What do you mean?”
“Nothing.” Earl drained his cocktail and turned toward the glass doors.
Laura grabbed his arm. “What did you mean?”
Earl looked into Laura’s blue eyes. Her lashes were long, dark, and attention-grabbing thanks to her glittery mascara. Maybe she was blonde out of a bottle after all. Her lips were not so thin like other white women.
“You make race such a big issue,” he said.
“You’ve been talking about it all night,” Earl said. “Constantly. You make it an issue with how you act.”
“How do I act?” Laura said, her voice rising.
Earl massaged the back of his neck. Laura repeated the question. Should he answer?
“Like you’re part of some struggle,” Earl blurted. “Like Doug’s your blacklight for intolerance. It’s just silly.”
Laura’s face reddened and her features began to converge and strain and crease her heavily made-up skin. She was not nearly as attractive when angry. “I can’t believe you would say that.”
“Ask Doug,” Earl said. “He agrees with me.”
She licked her index finger and thumb, pinched out her joint, and stuffed it in her pocket. Earl’s eyes drifted toward a prominent mole near Laura’s cleavage. Perhaps he had said too much.
“You don’t think I’m good for Doug,” she said.
Earl glanced inside, hoping to be rescued. Where were Grace and Doug? “That’s not what I’m saying,” he said, softening his voice. “I’m sorry I brought it up.” He waited for the murmuring inside to commence. “Doug is a lucky man.”
Laura placed hands on hips. “You don’t mean it.”
“I do.” Earl palmed her shoulder. Sinewy to the touch, not like soft Grace. He leaned in ever so slightly to whiff her blond hair. She smelled like sweat and crisp laundry.
Laura backed away. “I can tell you don’t,” she said. “Your wife says you lie all the time. About wanting kids. About not wanting kids. About what you like. About what you don’t like. Doug and I don’t have a perfect relationship but maybe you should look at yours more closely.”
Earl stopped listening. Again, he moved in, nodding, his face close to hers, close enough to smell her boozy breath. Out of the corner of Earl’s eye, he observed tall, thin Doug and little Grace talking, her looking up at him. Footfalls on the hardwood. The slit of yellow light between their dark figures. They were clearing the glasses from the living room. When was the last time Earl’s pulse drummed this intensely? Back away, he told himself. His sweet Grace, his boy Doug.
He lowered his hand, wrapped an arm around Laura’s waist, and pulled her close until their flanks touched. There was resistance, but Earl held firm. “I like white ladies a lot,” he whispered into Laura’s ear.
Earl and Grace stood in their front doorway, arms around each other. They bade their guests farewell. Grace said they’d get on each other’s calendars soon, and Earl reminded Doug to drive safely. Earl’s hand was numb against Grace’s flank. Would Laura mention their encounter to Doug? Christ, of course, she’d go on and on about it! Earl would have to explain to his best friend that he meant to complement Laura and, in his slight inebriation, had come off sounding a bit uncouth. Would Doug understand? Would he forgive?
“What do you think of her now?” Grace asked, letting go of Earl, walking into the kitchen.
“As long as Doug loves her, I suppose,” he muttered, following his wife. He rubbed his side where Laura had elbowed him. She had called him a number of pejoratives. None could be construed as racist (save perhaps “limp dick”). He was lucky Grace had convinced him to splurge on double-paned glass for those sliding doors during last year’s remodeling.
“What were you two talking about out there?”’
Earl peeked out the kitchen window, now streaked with dripping condensation, clearing a view of the black streets. “Nothing much,” he said. Downstairs, Doug opened the car door for Laura. He waved up at Earl. Earl held up a hand that didn’t felt like his.
“Didn’t seem like nothing,” Grace said, turning on the faucet.
Her back was turned to Earl. She was rinsing a bowl in the sink. Her hair was tousled on top, frayed at the ends. She would say it was time for a cut soon. His Grace. No one would question them.
“She said they’d love to have what we have,” Earl said.
“Did she?” Grace didn’t turn around. Was she still upset at him? Earl wrapped his arms around her waist and placed his cheek against hers. He shut his eyes. Grace smelled milky, of sweat, her face cold. She wriggled free.
“What is it that you think we have?” she asked.